A Tale of Two Cousins

During a late sweep through the dark corners of my mother’s attic, I stumbled upon a moldering shrine to one of my paternal great-aunts. Louise Bickers, a.k.a “Weezer,” was a feisty single woman whom I loved like a grandmother. With affectionate if drowsy interest, I dragged over a rickety wooden stool and dusted off her leftovers—stacks of limp letters, photos with curled edges, family trees scribbled on yellowed paper, and a decomposing shoebox of daguerreotypes.

Stumped? So was I. An early form of photograph produced by “fuming” mercury vapor onto silver-plated copper, the daguerreotype was introduced in 1839 and became obsolete by the 1860s. The 1860s! And there I sat, a hundred and fifty-plus years later, with several in passable shape. I ran my finger along the hammered tin frames, eyed the elaborate clothing, the formal, sometimes severe gazes. Where did these people—certainly family—live? What did they do? My curiosity piqued, I tucked the least fusty samples into a fresh plastic bin beside far too many of Weezer’s letters and photos and family trees, and moved on.

During the pandemic’s endless, vacant shut-in hours, I fetched up those family trees, rebooted my Ancestry.com membership, and typed in name after name. It was fun, by 2020 standards, learning how to create profiles for my long-lost blood kin and search for relevant documents and photos. When a grainy image of one of my great-great grandfathers popped up, I knew immediately it was—you got it—a daguerreotype. I fished out Weezer’s frames to compare and contrast. None of the faces matched exactly, but they favored, as my mother would say.

At once piercing and playful, my second great grandfather’s gaze seems especially, hauntingly, familiar. Born in 1825, Thomas Blake Bourne descended from a long line of tobacco planters in Calvert County, Maryland, a leg of land that kicks out into the Chesapeake Bay. The Census of 1850 valued his property at $2,500, equivalent to about $150,000 today, making his a healthy if small farm for its time. I can’t pinpoint the farm’s exact location, but odds are it was on or near Eltonhead, a tobacco manor along the instep of the county’s watery foot, tracts of which had belonged to Bournes since the late 17th century.

Thomas Blake Bourne, Lieutenant of the “CSA” and my second great grandfather

A city girl, I smiled to picture my great-great grandparents, Thomas and Margaret Louisa, living their quaint, rural 19th century lives. Soon a marriage record surfaced from May of 1848, a photo of Thomas’s gravestone, the inscription honoring him as “… a devoted husband and father, true to his friends and his country,” and a certificate proving that his maternal grandfather, Colonel Joseph Blake, fought in the American Revolution. Cool. I’m a DAR. I felt all rosy with pride. Then something else, less than quaint, caught my eye—a Slave Schedule, an appendix to the 1850 Census in which enslavers identified their “human property,” not by name but according to age, sex and color. I blanched, my ancestral pride dissolving as I counted the tick marks beside Thomas’s name: an even ten, six black males and four black females between the ages of six and forty-five.

I attached the Slave Schedule to Thomas’s profile and clicked back to his daguerreotype. That playful grin … might it be more a cunning smirk? My forehead heavy in my palm, I called my daughter in New York.

“We are from the South, Mom,” she said, unsurprised.

“But your grandfather came from humble roots,” I argued. “And Maryland’s hardly the South …”

“I know, Mom,” she said gently, knowingly. “But even small farmers enslaved workers back then.”

Which I knew, but this was our family, a whole different ballgame. I hung up and returned, dull eyed, to my laptop screen. Lined up in the right margin, I noticed tiny circular photos I’d missed before, profiles of other genealogists who’d saved Thomas Bourne’s image. I hovered over one, then another and another, and a pattern emerged—many belonged to people of color. What’s more, the family tree associated with each profile included a common ancestor, a man named Louis H. Bourne.

With clammy fingers, I typed Louis’s information into the Ancestry search engine. My first hit was the Census of 1860, which lists Louis H. Bourne, born 1830, as a “mulatto” head of household and farm laborer in Calvert County. More hits revealed that by 1880, Louis and his wife, Margaret, had purchased over thirty acres of land and settled down to farm tobacco in Island Creek, a breezy community along the Patuxent River that lies about fifteen miles from where Thomas Blake Bourne lived with his family. 

Calvert County in the Colonial Era

Or used to live. In 1855, amid rumblings of the war to come, Thomas had moved his household—including three children and at least nine enslaved persons—across four rivers and the Mason-Dixon line to a manor house near the James River in Virginia, a state he surely wagered would prove friendlier to his future as a planter. Eight years and three children later, Thomas enlisted to fight for the confederate states. He was thirty-eight. Around the same time, Louis H. Bourne, thirty-two, signed on with the Union Army. And so it was that second cousins, as I believe they were, took up arms against each other in a war rooted in misconceptions and greed. Were Thomas and Louis aware of this? I suspect so. It was a much smaller world then and Thomas still had family aplenty in Calvert County. Both men survived, though my great-great grandfather would die suddenly ten years later, the youngest of his nine children only eleven years old.

As intrigued as I was conflicted, I reached out to a few folks whose trees included Louis Bourne. Responses were scarce, but eventually I heard from Florencetine “Tina” Bourne Jasmin of Baltimore County. I hesitated–what right did I have to barge into her life?–then dove in and wrote to her that we could be related, somehow, through Louis Bourne.

“Oh my gosh,” Tina responded. “I’ve been hoping to find someone who might know something about my great grandfather!!!” Smiling again, I shared a little about my family. Tina sent photos of her son and daughter and grandchildren. She told me Louis Bourne had remained—thrived—in Island Creek until his death at seventy, as did many of his children, and some of theirs, and theirs and theirs right up to the present. Louis and Margaret had eleven children, among them trailblazers who stared down the fetters and hostilities of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. One of their sons, Ulysses Grant Bourne, was among the first black physicians to practice in Frederick, Maryland. A grandson, James Franklyn Bourne, Jr, was the first black judge to serve on the district court for Prince George’s County. Quite a legacy, an improbable triumph in fact, and this was only the beginning.

Louis H. Bourne, 1830-1900

At some point, I told Tina I regretted the unspeakable abuses my ancestors had visited on hers. “This history is beyond our control,” she mused. “I want to believe our ancestors are pleased with us for trying to reconcile our past.” Awed by her tolerance and wisdom, I thanked her and we dug in, working to make sense of our family ties. Tina quickly shared her best clue–a digital copy of Louis’s death certificate which names his mother as “Gracey Mason,” and his father as “James Bourne.” James Bourne? Thomas’s father, my third great grandfather, was named James. But then so was his oldest son, and his first cousin, James Jacob Bourne. Which James fathered Louis? And did he enslave Gracey Mason and the son they shared? Hard to know. A pair of 19th century Calvert County courthouse fires destroyed wills and bills of sale that might have given us proof.

We called in help. Tiffinney Green of Baltimore, Delma Bourne-Parran and Patrice Evans of Prince Frederick, and another cousin in California, all descendants of Louis Bourne, joined our search. The emails flew. We shared trees, unpacked oral history. Hoping to discover shared DNA, we spit in vials, waited, and waited some more.

From the will of Jacob Bourne, my 5th great grandfather.

The results: Delma, Patrice and Tiffinney each match with at least one of my distant white Bourne cousins. And the kicker–Patrice’s sister and I share DNA. Heartened by this proof of our kinship, we analyzed and drew charts and at last wagered that James Jacob Bourne (1791-1850), an enslaver of twenty-two, most likely fathered Louis H. Bourne. This means our common direct ancestor is my fifth great-grandfather, Jacob Bourne (1721-1771), whose will survives with a full inventory attached. In the same figurative breath as a tea kettle, three old sickles, and the spinning wheel in the corner, Jacob names Grace, age forty-five, as one of several enslaved people to be “gifted” to his sons. Might this Grace have had a granddaughter who was passed down the line to James Jacob? It was common after all for baby girls to be named for a grandmother.

My ethnicity compared with that of a person of color who shares DNA with both Patrice Evans and me.

Due to those courthouse fires, for months we had little else to go on. Then Tiffinney found a Grace Mason, born 1807, listed in a Calvert County registry of Free African-Americans in 1832. She lived with a Hannah Mason, age forty. A Louis Mason, age two (just Louis Bourne’s age), also appears in the registry and seems to have been part of Grace’s household. Grace and Louis Mason then disappear. Free people of color were often servants in households that enslaved others, and our hunch is that Grace Mason worked for James Jacob Bourne. Maybe at some point, say when Louis was a child, James took in Grace and their son, maybe even enslaved them in some sort of twisted effort to control them. Did Louis Mason then become known as Louis Bourne? Did James Jacob later free his son who should have been free all along?

We’ll likely never know the full truth. The fact that Louis shows up in the 1860 Census means he was a free man well before Maryland officially emancipated its enslaved. Hannah Mason, the woman listed alongside Grace in the 1832 Registry, provides another clue. Louis’s 1860 household included a Hannah Mason, age seventy-four. Though the years don’t quite match up, they’re close enough for that era to suggest that Hannah was Louis’s grandmother, and that her daughter–Louis’s mother, Grace–died young.

Unless James Bourne sold Grace off.

“I pray that was not the case,” Tiffinney wrote to me.

I pray so, too.

Much work remains. Most of my family lines run back to the colonial era, where other fraught relationships lie in wait. Tiffinney and I have DNA matches in common that suggest we may also be kin through my Mattingly side, and I’m in touch with another young woman directly descended from Colonel Joseph Blake. Looks like the Colonel’s son had his violent way with her third great grandmother.

Broome’s Island at the mouth of Island Creek, not far from where Louis Bourne farmed tobacco and raised his eleven children.

In May, my sister, JoJo, and I visited Calvert County. We researched alongside Tina and Tiffinney, and after, the four of us gathered for dinner with Patrice, Delma, and Marietta Bourne Morris, who still lives in Island Creek. We bored each other with family stories. We laughed over wine and margaritas. Humbled, JoJo and I accepted the kindnesses these women offered. Strong one and all, they overlook with seeming ease the troubled origins of our relationship and accept us as family. I’m proud to call them cousins, hopeful that Louis and James Jacob, Thomas and Grace Mason and my great aunt Weezer are indeed pleased.

Moving forward, I’m not naïve enough to expect from others the open-hearted welcome I’ve received from the Bournes. It’s nothing I deserve. One thing seems certain—this is not a tale of two cousins. It’s a tale of hundreds, thousands—dark-eyed and green and blue; blonde, red-haired, brunette; Irish and Bantu and Latin, Nigerian and Welsh and Congolese. Our skin shines ebony and alabaster and every hue between, and our cells quiver with the tangled threads of those who came before us, our human race.

Family

Postscript: If this sort of research project interests you, message me below or through Facebook. I’m happy to share tips and links to resources. There are many!

I Am Mae Mobley

Friday was my birthday. Mid-summer, any way you slice it, prone to the lingering 4th hangover and hot and gluey the hemisphere around. In Atlanta, my home town, July 8th often dawns drowsy and nondescript, a day when traffic is strangely light and folks wind up sipping icy beverages by the pool or streaming baseball in front of an AC vent. I mean, think about it … has anything of true significance ever happened on July 8th? I looked it up, and not much. In 1835, the Liberty Bell cracked, though reports vary. It might have been the 12th. In 1907, whoop-dee-doo, Ziegfield opened his first follies in New York City. 1918: Hemingway was wounded on the Austro-Italian front but macho-man that he was, survived to pen his oeuvre. 1947: a UFO crashed down in New Mexico (or not), and in 1949, Wolfgang Puck was born, followed by Kevin Bacon in ’58. Hmmm.

To be honest, I used to feel a little sorry for myself for having my special day during this time of scatter, a summer limbo void of classroom cupcakes and pinatas. When I was a wee thing, my birthday parties tended to be poorly attended at best, fleshed out with persons (see photo) my mother rounded up to stand in for my wider circle of friends, who were off at camp or beach-combing with their families. Nowadays, I often vamoose on July 8th myself, and really, as the calendar turns, what could be better than to flit out of town and have one’s birthday forgotten altogether?

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Looks like my besties, Helen, Diana, Eleanor, made this party, my 8th on the 8th, but the friend parade stopped there. Mom filled the empty seats with Helen’s kid sister and a few younger cousins.
But this July, 2016, I’m home in the city. My birth-week went haywire from the start. On Tuesday the 5th, Alton Sterling was shot by police in Baton Rouge, another possible case of color-coded fear having led to the panicked and deadly misuse of power. Ditto on the 6th, when a routine traffic stop in suburban St. Paul ended with Philando Castile, an African American man, dead. Yet sadly, if not for what happened next, on my birthday eve, these events might have become little more than tragic footnotes in the on-line version of “On This Day in History.”

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Birthday Cheers
As yet unaware, I woke on the 8th to the joy of family texts and emails sent at the crack of dawn and a birthday poster lovingly drawn by my youngest son (see left, an old Payne tradition). But before I could pour my first cup of Joe, I found myself longing for the dull birthday anonymity I used to lament. On the kitchen television, an endless loop of chaos and gunfire on the streets of Dallas during an otherwise peaceful protest, a dozen policemen sniper-shot, five dead.

Mass shooting number 150 or so on the year, and we’re hardly halfway home. I don’t know how many of these were racially motivated, but I’d bet a silver dollar they were all rooted in hate, the kind of hate that when kindled by emotional instability is likely to fester in the heart of the dispossessed, the kind of hate that so often meets with an ironic end, where one desperate individual lashes out against others equally marginalized, but for different reasons, the kind of hate I believe is at its core self-hate, and in the end bound to turn on itself, but only after havoc has been wreaked. Consider the deeply troubled and alienated white drug addict who guns down African Americans in a place of worship historically vital to the Civil Rights movement; the pathologically angry Muslim American, isolated within the country of his birth, who opens fire on his gay neighbors; the mentally disturbed black war vet who ambushes white police officers as they monitor citizens of varied races seeking to prevent future incidents of policing gone sour.

Woman and Child
September, 1966, a race riot rocks the streets of Atlanta’s Summerville neighborhood. Here, a young mother clutches her young son, rescued by a white police officer from her tear-gassed home. Layer upon complex layer of anguished love.

I’m over-simplifying, and even so, my head spins. The line between villain and victim grows more muddied every day as hot-button issues like gun legislation, immigration, mental health care, police brutality become so multi-layered and complicated it’s impossible to discuss them without simplifying. But enough. I don’t write today to enter a particular dialogue (though I have opinions! I sign petitions!). I write because as a white woman born and raised and still living in the American South, my bones ache with a helpless sorrow I can’t well reckon with. I write in the hope that putting words to paper will help me lasso emotions I can’t otherwise make sense of. And already I’ve erred. Sorrow isn’t the right word. What I feel is closer to despair. That we as Americans, no matter the shade of our skin, continue to wrestle with the violent manifestations of the same brand of hate, the same demons that have threatened our nation since its inception, is unthinkable.

During the last long hours of a recent trans-Atlantic flight, I flipped through Air France’s film library and settled on The Help. I’d seen it before, and found it on both occasions more moving, more true-to-life than I expected (I boycotted the book, perhaps unfairly, having heard it was sappy and overdone). What I’d forgotten was the uncomfortable blend of warm recognition and biting shame the film dredged up in me. In some ways, I am Mae Mobley Leefolt, the little white girl loved and cared for by the family’s black maid, Aibileen Clark. Mae Mobley was born, fictionally speaking, in August, 1960, in Jackson, Mississippi. I was born in July, 1960, in Atlanta. Mae Mobley had Aibileen. I had Mary Darian, the young woman who worked at our house not every day but often enough I thought of her as family. When in the final scene Mae Mobley calls out to Aibileen, “You’re my real mother!” (yep, pretty sappy), my heart leaps in spite of itself. Though my mother wasn’t negligent like Mae Mobley’s, Mary was sort of her co-mother, an energetic, funny, hands-on, more hip role model than Mom, forty-one when I came along, was capable of being.

And Mary was black.  And far too smart, too gifted, for her position. She had small children of her own someone else cared for while she raised us, no doubt earning less than she deserved. Yet she changed my diapers and sang me to sleep. She picked me up from school and brought my dog along to greet me. She fried a chicken for us on Friday afternoons. Later, she wrote me at camp when I was homesick, sharing details about what my brothers were up to (“Tommy and I cleaned out his closet. He hates making decisions”), complimenting my mother’s sewing projects or cracking a little joke, usually at her own expense. Sometimes she signed off, tongue-in-cheek, “The Maid.” My favorite letter (from Mom’s Attic, of course) is written on two sheets of construction paper torn crookedly across the top and quadri-folded to fit the envelope. After dating the letter, Mary wrote “cheap paper” in parentheses and a few lines later elaborated: “This paper is slightly uneven–like the writer.”

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My Crazy Maid Mary, so dubbed in an essay of the same title, one in which I sang Mary’s praises to my fourth grade teacher. I’ve searched and searched, but the Attic has yet to produce that particular heirloom. Here, she meets one of my nephews.
Like Mae Mobley, I was Mary’s “last white baby.” She left us when I began junior high, taking a job at the hospital where I was born. Mary made a career there, earned a few promotions and stayed until she reached retirement age. We kept in touch, a phone call now and then, quick visits during family weddings, funerals. Then, a long gap of time passed with little contact until the day of my mother’s funeral. As I walked out on my brother’s arm, I caught sight of Mary at the end of a pew. White-haired, a little stooped, she somehow wept and smiled at once. I stopped, and we hugged each other’s necks and cried together. She told me how much she’d loved my mother, her friend, how she misses me, and all the Mattinglys.

Since, and especially during weeks filled with race-inspired violence like this last, I think about Mary, now eighty, and feel that same warmth tempered by shame movies like The Help can rustle up. I like to think our bond was unusual, deeper than most of its type. Mary was my friend and yet, history says what we and thousands of other black-white, maid-child duos of the fifties and sixties shared was tainted. History says that if not for the evils of slavery, these bonds wouldn’t exist, that perhaps they shouldn’t have existed. I can’t deny the truth in this, but then, what do we do with the warmth, the love, that remain?

It occurs to me that other than what I share here, I don’t know Mary Darian’s story. I don’t know how she, eighteen when my parents hired her, managed to break the cycle of domestic service. I knew nothing, as her white baby of the 1960s, about the sit-ins and marches, the tear-gas and beatings, that were happening across town, maybe in her neighborhood. I don’t know who or what she might have lost to the long slog of the Civil Rights struggle. My parents, like Mary herself, were careful to shield me from these seminal, sometimes violent events that would shape our lives. In this, my ignorance of Mary’s story, lies a valid basis for guilt and shame. I can’t change history. I can’t make amends for actions taken by my forebears, though I regret and renounce them. I can’t go back and rearrange the circumstances of my relationship with Mary, but I can at least do what another one of Kathryn Stockett’s characters, Skeeter, does. I can learn Mary’s story. I owe her, and myself, that much.

On Friday, after I switched off the reports coming in from Dallas, I gave Mary a call. She knew my voice immediately and as she spoke, I pictured through the line the tall, confident, young woman who used to drive me to McDonald’s for a Big Mac after school. She told me she’d had a fall, but that her daughter, Lou, had taken such good care of her she was back on her feet. With held breath, I asked after her three sons. They’re well, she reported, all working and living in the metro area. I smiled. Mary’s sons, middle-aged black males in a Southern city, are thriving. They’ve beat the odds, so far. I caught Mary up on my own family and asked if I could come by to see her. “Why sure, anytime!” she said, then paused. “Well, anytime other than Wednesday. I still get out for my Bible study on Wednesdays.”

So we’ll have a visit on Tuesday morning. A late birthday present. I can hardly wait to hear what she has to say.